How Formula E race cars are guiding Jaguar’s EV future

Jaguar has an ambitious vision to go all-electric by 2025 with a new set of EVs. By 2030, the brand plans to launch e-models of its whole lineup. It joins a suite of other carmakers racing to develop zero-emissions vehicles to fight against climate change. And, on the race track, the luxury brand is already showing off its electric prowess. 

Although Jaguar had a Formula 1 team for a few years in the early 2000s, it took a break and didn’t participate in any motorsport activity after 2004. It returned in 2016 through a new all-electric championship called Formula E.

“It was a very immature series, but it had this ability, this scope to be massive,” Jack Lambert, research innovation manager for Jaguar Motorsport, tells PopSci. When the championship launched, the market was only starting to embrace EVs. “And as the technology developed from Gen 1 to Gen 2, and now Gen 3, the road relevance has developed with it.”    

As summer starts winding down, Jaguar is coming to the end of its ninth season of racing in Formula E. Lambert notes that since the first race, EV technology has rapidly progressed, reshaping how the races look. Next year, the company expects to deploy fast-charging systems in its races next year, which will put that technology to the test. “I would imagine in the next two or three seasons, we would see the pure acceleration capabilities of Formula E cars being able to match that of Formula 1,” he says. “We’re catching up.”

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During the early phases of the Gen 1 races, when battery technology was less advanced, teams had to use two cars to complete the approximately 30-mile race. “We would see these really dramatic pit stops where the driver would come in and jump out of the car, basically while it was still moving, and try and jump into another one that’s fully charged,” Lambert says. Just six seasons later, he says, Jaguar’s 500-horsepower electric cars have batteries that last the full 50-minute race. Plus, the cars can pull in 600 kilowatts through regenerative braking, an electric vehicle quirk that can convert the kinetic energy from braking into power that charges the battery. 

Formula 1 vs Formula E

They may look similar on the surface, but at the core, Formula 1 and Formula E races are quite different. Formula 1 is known as a constructors’ series. Each team must design and manufacture every element of the vehicle, and consider how a chassis would work with aerodynamics, power units, braking technology, and all of a car’s other systems. 

Formula E, on the other hand, is a manufacturers’ series, which means that a high percentage of each vehicle is the same. “We place our unique development in only certain areas of the car that are technically regulated by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). For Formula E, it’s all focused on the powertrain and e-mobility-related technology,” says Lambert. Jaguar’s engineers must figure out how to take power from the battery and get that to the wheel in the most efficient way possible. The crux of their focus is on the inverters, the motors, and the batteries. 

[Related: An inside look at the data powering McLaren’s F1 team

Formula E cars operate the way that all EVs do. The batteries store a big block of chemical energy that needs to be turned into kinetic energy at the tires. “The way you do that is you take the energy that comes out of the wheel in the form of voltage and direct current through an inverter,” Lambert explains. The inverter uses several switching methods to convert direct current into an alternating current, in the form of an oscillating sine wave. The motor, which contains a magnet, has a magnetic field. When the oscillating electric current interacts with the rotor’s magnetic field, it creates torque that translates to a gearbox and ultimately drives shafts and tires. 

Race to road

When Jaguar’s team thinks about race to road technology transfer, they aren’t focused on any specific component. Race cars have dramatically different hardware than any road-bound consumer cars. It’s more about the systems engineering approach to solving big-picture problems, such as how to get electric power from the battery to the tires in the most efficient way. 

“Efficient powertrains in racing allow us to be faster and complete the race distance quicker, but actually, the same technology translated into road allow consumer EVs to go further on one charge,” Lambert explains. “There’s a lot of different approaches and a lot of different technologies that enable that.” 

One good example is their work with semiconductor company Wolfspeed on silicon carbide technology, a material that has been used in Jaguar’s race car inverters since 2017. These types of inverters can expand an EV’s overall range, “but at the time it wasn’t appropriate for the market, given that it was very early in its maturation and it was expensive,” says Lambert. “Now what you’re seeing is the automotive industry is catching up. So all the cars that you’ll see on the road going forward, particularly in the luxury space, will have silicon carbide within their inverters.”

Through racing, Jaguar can also observe how its technology behaves and collect relevant data around performance metrics like acceleration and battery use. And data, like in Formula 1, is a powerful tool for the team. 

The design for Formula E cars are checked over and locked in for two seasons. That means once racing regulators approve a car design, the team can’t really change it. What Jaguar’s engineers and developers can tweak in the off-season is their software. In collaboration with IT company Tata Consultancy Services, Jaguar is building analytics platforms to process and handle all the data—3 terabytes every weekend—generated through the races. This software’s capabilities, as tested through racing, could one day help smart or autonomous vehicles on the road. 

Quite often, when the Jaguar team looks at a new EV innovation, they’ll note that it’s not fully developed for consumer vehicles, but it could be put into a race car. “That becomes an early innovation testbed,” says Lambert. “Rather than having something that lives in the virtual space and in the research for two years, we can quickly turn that into proof-of-concept and put it on a race car.”